Tag Archives: Switzerland

Crossing the St. Bernard Pass in Winter (By Ian Brodrick)

[Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard]

The Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard.
Photo courtesy Ian Brodrick.

I first heard of the St. Bernard Pass, in the Swiss Alps on the way to Italy, when I was quite young. Ever since, the name makes me imagine monks and their St. Bernard dogs wading through deep snow to rescue travellers.

I recently found out that pilgrims walking to Rome on the Via Francigena take the St. Bernard Pass, but I imagined them walking in warmer seasons.

It turns I was wrong—at least a little. Ian Brodrick recently braved winter conditions on the pass with Regula Burri, a Swiss friend he met on the Camino. He summarizes his findings below for other pilgrims who are interested in the same journey.

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At the end of January, I crossed the St. Bernard in two days from Orsieres to Aosta, following the route pilgrims on the Via Francigena usually take in summer, with an overnight stay at the Hospice-du-Grand-Saint-Bernard. I made the trip to assess the route’s viability in winter, and to enjoy an Alpine winter walk.

The road normally closes in October and the route is a very different proposition in winter. It should really be considered Alpine winter walking, both on the graded slopes of the road and on other tracks. In our case, Orsieres to the hospice took about nine hours. The main problem was that we had to spend a couple of hours high up on the pass in the dark, with falling temperatures. It was very cold, reaching -15 to -20 degrees Celsius very early in the evening.

I would not discourage anyone with the will and experience to make this journey. But keep in mind it needs a good deal of thought, preparation and perhaps experience.

I would suggest most winter walkers take the bus from Orsiere to Aosta—especially if you’re in any doubt about your abilities or the conditions. There are two buses a day in winter, and they are very quick indeed.

For most people, I think the walking season starts when the road is cleared and the paths defrost. But in late spring, with longer warmer days, snowshoeing might be a pleasure not a trial. It might be worth trying then, before the cars return to the road (which is closed all winter).

Obviously many of the local facilities are closed in winter, while winter sports shops and resorts are open. This includes Crystal Sports in Orsieres, where you can hire snowshoes of some sort. You will also need very warm outdoor clothes, a compass and a head torch. For us, water was freezing in the pack in half an hour or so. It’s always good to carry a decent steel thermos with sweet tea.

To stay at the hospice it is necessary to call in advance (the day before)—and you must stay there. All of the other facilities on the Col are closed with the road.

The Route to the Col

[St. Bernard Pass]

The second day of the trek over the St. Bernard Pass, descending to Aosta.
Photo courtesy Ian Brodrick.

The first thing to say is that the trails marked out for the Via Francigena are for the most part unused in winter. For us, it was icy in the lower northern valleys in Switzerland, with melting and refreezing covering even the forest floor with sheet ice, and there was deep snow higher up toward Bourg St. Pierre and up to the Super St. Bernard ski location.

Routes marked out for snowshoeing were entirely unused, even the one next to Orsieres. Some parts were covered in sheet ice, and others in hard snow.

It is essential to have snowshoes or walking crampons on the trails, and then good snowshoes on the snow-covered Col de St. Bernard road to the hospice, and to leave ample time in the short days.

Without proper equipment, adequate experience and planning the route could be dangerous—I must stress that here.

In relation to distance, it would not be unreasonable to add a further fifty percent to the time you’d need under better conditions. I would say that for most it would be unwise to attempt to reach the hospice from anywhere further away that Bourg St. Pierre. Even then, I found all of the Via Francigena trails to have been completely unused for the winter period. Some few intrepid souls walked the road towards the tunnel to get to the hospice.

Most skiers and snowshoers are simply dropped off at the bottom of the road at the super St. Bernard ski station, and use cross country skis to ascend! This is not really what we are doing.

From the Super St. Bernard ski location, the climb on the snow-covered road begins. In January, I found that even moving well we could not get to the hospice in daylight from Orsieres.

Again, I must stress that for most walkers, being in Alpine winter temperatures and conditions in the dark is not safe and should not be contemplated. While the road is marked with snow poles, they may not be easy to follow in bad conditions. Previous tracks are easily covered by a slight wind.

A head torch is good for when it gets profoundly dark, but otherwise peripheral vision in the snowy conditions will work (but wear dark glasses in bright snow conditions). The hospice has exterior lights. They are only visible in good weather relatively close to the Col, and it is easy to see that navigational errors could lead to a serious incident.

Navigation is not difficult, even at night, if you are a little used to night walking in the hills and in extreme cold, but errors are possible in a number of places. The route is mostly in a valley, with only a couple of wrong turns possible—but they are possible. In tough conditions people normally make errors that would be inexplicable in other circumstances.

As mentioned, there are snow poles (less visible in bad weather), and often tracks I guess come from touring skiers. These can’t be relied on.

The temperatures after dark quickly went down to -15 or -20, and required good equipment. I strongly advise that anyone contemplating this route in winter ensures that they have daylight, along with the equipment and some skills to deal with the conditions. It is essential to research the weather.

Low visibility and high winds create complications—and indeed mean the majority should not consider this route. The other issue that must be mentioned is avalanches across the road—I’ll discuss that more later. The monks at the hospice keep records and can be relied on for day-by-day weather updates. You can find contact details on the Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard website.

My view is that a mapping GPS would be very useful to someone crossing the pass—but you’d need to keep the batteries warm. Also note that using a GPS exposes the hands to frostbite, and that would be a real danger if it were, say, -20 and windy. It’s best to wear good fingerless gloves under a windproof thin pair, with a pair of mittens over the top.

In winter, always let people at the next place you’re staying know you are coming, and give them an estimate of arrival time. It may be your only chance of rescue. Having said that, this is Switzerland, and there is mobile phone signal throughout the pass!

The Hospice

The hospice is open in winter and excellent. In January there was no problem at all with space. It was a delight to find this wonderful institution in the freezing and profoundly dark night. We were chided for being late for dinner at 7:30pm!

The route south from the hospice toward Aosta also follows the snow-covered road. The trails are under deep snow in winter. Competent touring skiers can use their own judgment to shorten the route. Everyone else needs good snowshoes—perhaps rather better than the “walking the dog” ones hired out by Cristal in Orsieres. MSR Lighning or similar might work well. This is a basic matter of safety.

There is a real issue with avalanches on this route south. We could see many slab and powder avalanches, and in places they took out the road barriers. Few people had ventured up or down from the Aosta Valley this winter, although we found the conditions safe enough. It is necessary to ensure the conditions are safe before making any attempt—and to be able to deal with whatever conditions you find.

After two or three hours of descent down the original track, you come across the Italian end of the tunnel, and the going gets flatter and easier. The new road to the tunnel continues above in concrete conduit. Near to St. Remy the road is open, but some of the trails used by the Via Francigena are closed. The route can be found just above the village at the end of the cleared road. It is necessary to walk to Etroubles and on to Aosta on the roads.

St. Remy is now bedecked in Via Francigena signage, and emblems—and that includes the street lamps!

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Many thanks to Ian Brodrick for this informative article.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:17 pm
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Interview with Pilgrims to Rome: Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

[Noceto, Italy]

Noceto, Italy, from the Via Francigena
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

In 2008, Canadian couple Julie Burk and Neville Tencer walked 1,000 kilometres of the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route that took them through Switzerland and Italy to Rome.

They recently published An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage about their adventure. (You can follow the links at the bottom to learn more about the book and its authors.) I’m looking forward to reading the copy I’ve ordered—judging from the reviews, it does an excellent job of showing both the highs and lows of travelling a route that’s much less developed than the main routes of the Camino de Santiago.

Neville and Julie recently took some time out of planning two upcoming presentations about their journey (in Victoria, BC, Canada) to tell me a bit about the Via Francigena, how it compares to the Camino Francés, and their experiences on it.

[The Route Napoleon]

The Route Napoleon
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

Anna-Marie: Where in Switzerland did you begin your walk to Rome?

Julie and Neville: We started in Martigny, about a 3-day walk straight up to Gran San Bernardo [Great Saint Bernard Pass]. You can easily start in a number of places, including Lausanne where the Via Francigena and Camino de Santiago intersect. Or in Aosta, Italy if you rather not climb over the Alps.

You learned about the Via Francigena while you were walking the Camino Francés route of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Were you at all worried about how undeveloped the Via Francigena is compared to many Camino de Santiago routes?

We were in Spain when we first learned about the Via Francigena but at the time, we really did not know much about the Via Francigena or even how to pronounce it correctly. Once back home in Canada, we discovered there was very little English documentation on the route, but we were able to locate a number of Italian websites, including one site that provided a daily stage plan of the route. Further research suggested that there were plenty of opinions about the actual route and even questions about the quality of signage and availability of accommodations. Nevertheless, we never seriously worried about how undeveloped the Via Francigena but we did try to plan around it, wherever possible, given what we knew. We decided to give it try and we would figure things out along the way.

Anna-Marie’s Note: There is now a set of three Lightfoot Guides to the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome available in English.

[Neville Tencer and Julie Burk]

Neville Tencer and Julie Burk, authors of An Italian Odyssey
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

On the Camino Francés, a big part of the experience tends to be spending time with other pilgrims. Was it lonely on the Via Francigena in comparison, or were you able to meet a lot of locals?

It was never lonely. In fact, most days we went out of our way to meet and talk to locals. It was our plan to make this walk through Italy a culinary and cultural walk, thus talking and meeting locals was part of that plan. Some days we needed to talk to locals just to get directions.

Nevertheless, you are correct, there are very few pilgrims hiking the Via Francigena. However, when we did meet one or two other pilgrims, those moments were extremely special.

Are you fluent in Italian?

Julie did learn some basic Italian just as she [learned Spanish] for the Camino in Spain. Actually given that most Canadians know some French, learning Spanish and then Italian is easy for most people. However, not for me (Neville), since I was born in Australia and missed out learning French in grade school and hence my foreign language skills are basic, but I try.

Regardless where we travel, we always try to learn some basic words and phrases (myself included), so we can enrich our experiences. So we not afraid to say hello to people along the way—you will be surprised the things you discover from doing this.

How did the landscapes and terrain, and the difficulty of walking, compare with the Camino Francés?

The landscape is varied and different that the Camino Francés. For one, we started in Switzerland and we needed to climb over the Swiss/Italian Alps to a height of approx. 2600 metres and then later climb over another smaller range of mountains at approx 1000 metres in order to enter Tuscany; between were the flat plains of the Po River Valley. Further south were the rolling hills of Tuscany.

Thus the terrain might be described as more challenging, but not impossible to walk. In six hours of walking, you may not get as far as you would walking the Camino in Spain. It generally took longer to get somewhere each day.

[Sign on the Colle del Gran San Bernardo]

Sign on the Colle del Gran San Bernardo
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

I’ve read that the waymarking can be difficult to follow on parts of the Via Francigena route. What was your experience with that?

Signage varies from excellent, to good, to poor, to non-existent. And that can happen in all of one day. Some sections like the Valle d’Aosta generally have good signs, since other local hiking associations use this section of the route. The same applies for most of southern Tuscany. The Po River Valley was probably the most challenging for signage.

What kind of accommodations did you find along the Via Francigena? Did you usually have to book ahead?

At the time we walked the Via Francigena, we had to make our accommodation guide. We originally planned to stay in B&B, small pensions and hotels, etc. However, we also had a list of convents, hostels and monasteries and surprisingly decided to stay in these more often, since they offered affordable and very good accommodation.

Most days we just called ahead the day before and we strongly recommend doing this.

[Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy]

Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

You stopped in some historic towns and cities along the way. Which was your favourite?

As you walk the Via Francigena, you pass through some great historical cities and many smaller towns and villages, many that originate from days of the Romans. This was the other big reason for doing the walk. Our favorites include Aosta, Vercelli, Pavia, Orio Litta, Sarzana, Lucca, Siena, and Proceno, but all are special.

Food was an important part of your pilgrimage. What was your favourite culinary experience?

All that great Italian food (and wine) was the other big reason for doing this walk. The Via Francigena passes through six special and unique regions of food before reaching Rome, which itself has some special food only found there. The most special food regions include the Valle d’Aosta, the area around Vercelli known as the Vercellese and Lunigiana, which is in the most northern part of Tuscany.

What was your best experience on the journey?

Meeting Maria, but people we need to read our book to understand why.

And your worst experience?

We wanted to take an alternate route to avoid a busy section near Marina di Massa, but instead we got lost and ended walking through a busy industrial section of the city in a pouring raining during evening rush hour.

[An Italian Odyssey]

Julie Burk and Neville Tencer's book about walking the Via Francigena.
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

Is there anything else potential pilgrims to Rome should know about the Via Francigena? Would you recommend the journey?

I recommend that potential pilgrims join the Yahoo Group for the Via Francigena. There they can ask experienced Via Francigena pilgrims about their personal experiences and get the most updated information about the route.

I recommend they also check out our website, Verdera Media, for more information about the route. The site includes the most relevant links to other associations and sites including the Yahoo Group, plus photos from our walk

Finally, I recommend that they purchase our book, An Italian Odyssey; One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage. Along with describing the special and unique historical, culinary and cultural attributes of the Via Francigena, our book gives an honest account of one couple’s walk along the Via Francigena, where we share both our tough times and special and magical moments.

You can read an excerpt from An Italian Odyssey on the Go Nomad site, and read some reviews on the Verdera Media site.

Julie and Neville have some wonderful photos they took along the Via Francigena on the An Italian Odyssey Facebook page.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:28 am
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